Swiri (1999)
AKA: Shiri (International English Title)
(Release Date: February 13, 1999 [South Korea])
(Foreign Release Date: November 4, 1999 [Hong Kong - as Shiri])
(US Release Date: February 8, 1999)

Yoon-Jin... I'd take a bullet for you!Yoon-Jin... I'd take a bullet for you!Yoon-Jin... I'd take a bullet for you! 1/2

Separate them for too long... they die...

Seriously, can ANYTHING this beauty does TRULY be Evil?
J.C. Maçek III
The World's Greatest Critic!

My affinity for Yunjin Kim is not a secret I've kept terribly well... including from my wife. Thank God for understanding spouses. Noting this, the concept of me spending all that much more time without a review of her most famous film is just about as plausible as the hard science behind any given King Kong flick!

This, of course, brings us to Swiri (internationally known as "Shiri"), the top grossing South Korean movie of all time (in its mother country, it even broke the records set by Titanic). Swiri is heavy on the metaphors and at least some knowledge of Korean history (and current political climates)is a prerequisite here. After all, this was made for South Koreans by South Koreans, although the audience hath grown like Topsey internationally. The bottom line truth is that Swiri is a very good, borderline great, movie, heavy on the action, heavy on the character development and heavy on the Asian-Cinema violence. Because of these Class-A pros, it's especially notable when Swiri's logic nearly collapses during the final act. Luckily it's got an excellently beautiful final epilogue going for it as well as some top notch cinematography, directing and acting.

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If she shot me... I'd die HAPPY!
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Swiri is the intriguing tale of a South Korean secret agent named Yu "Ryu" JongWon (Han Suk-kyu) whose life has been centered around the stalemate between North Korea and South Korea for his entire career. He's got a capable partner named Lee (Song Kang-ho), an incredibly beautiful fiancée named Hyun (Yunjin Kim, credited here as Kim Yoon-Jin) and only one real fear: The recurring nightmare about the seductive North Korean spy named Hee.

Hee was to North Korea as James Bond was to Great Britain (making me wonder if her presence might have improved Die Another Day). She's got more successes as your average shark has teeth and more kills than any twenty suspects on America's Most Wanted. Even when her identity was revealed she remained the dangerous killer spy, taking out more democratic statesmen than Monica Lewinsky!

Sadly for Ryu and Lee, the ante has just been upped by Hee and her Special Forces group, who will stop at nothing (even a free screening of Oldboy) to unite North and South Korea (the dominant party being nonnegotiable). Mission leader Park Mu-young (the Oldboy himself, Choi Min-Sik) has a personal grudge, not just against South Korea, but against Ryu himself, for a raid-gone-wrong from years before. Once the 8th Special Forces have successfully boggarted enough CTX (liquid explosive) to annihilate every last soul in Seoul, Park leads Ryu on a cat and mouse chase throughout the city, culminating in the ultimate political statement (should he succeed).

Popping up like Topper's ghosts every time Park needs a little old-time rescuing (not to mention any time someone needs their head blown off, clean as you like). The mystery of who Hee actually is pushes Ryu every step of the way, desperate to protect his life, his country, and, of course, Hyung.

Swiri (named for a Korean aboriginal fish) uses intelligently crafted metaphors to illustrate the valiant plight of South Korea, however, these same metaphors serve to make very valid points about North Korea and what the people there go through, and have gone through for over fifty years. Writer/ Director Kang Je-gyu never shies away from the political and humanitarian dichotomy that is the Korean Peninsula. However he's also not afraid to point out what a conundrum this really is, virtually devoid of easy answers. Another thing he's far from shy about is action. This is most definitely not some political science lecture on Korea (those messages are both subtle and deep), this is an action film, through and through. It's got as many flying bullets as it does spurts of blood, which is saying something. This isn't the torrential blood flood of many of the "Tartan Asian Extreme" DVDs out there, but it's also not safe for the kids.

While Swiri is most certainly well written, well directed, packed with cool special effects and superbly acted, there are more flaws here than in Park's skin condition. While it's true that the big secret isn't really all that hard to figure out, the level to which Kang intended this to be a "shocker" is debatable. However, in such a thoughtful movie many things are left more than a little obvious for the otherwise streetwise characters to flesh out for themselves. Further, in the last half so much of the logic and balanced intelligence gives way to a blended surrender of reason to action. Far too often it just doesn't add up. Action films are, of course, known for this blatant victory of style over substance, however, Swiri is not a movie that would seem to fall victim to this cliché. There is so much attention to detail here that when the various pillars that hold the plot up start toppling like dominoes, we notice it more. It's like seeing a beautiful woman with bad teeth! If it had been all illogical, such blemishes might never have shown themselves, but when a film does this well otherwise, nits can be picked.

Still, this one rises above most action films, mostly because you believe in the well-developed characters (even if you don't quite buy all their situations). The action is unquestionably cool, and the directing suits it, as well as the more dramatic and romantic moments, quite well. Further, the acting is a definite asset to this flick, especially that of Yunjin Kim herself. Her performance here is as brilliant and beautiful as she is, and her varied portrayal of Hyung is worth every second of the viewing.

Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Swiri (Shiri). It's a fully-formed actioner that addresses some serious issues, while remaining balanced in the areas of character exploration and dramatic storytelling. Before Yunjin Kim got Lost, she was already one to watch... for more reasons than one. My advice is to check it out... but not over a fish dinner. As for me, I'm going to go learn Korean. I've got an island delivery to make to Kwon Sun-Hwa. Anybody got any of those Hanso Foundation islands mapped?

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Swiri (1999) reviewed by J.C. Maçek III who is solely responsible for the content of this site, but not for his adoration for Ms. Kim... that is all her responsibility!
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